The One about Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game”

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It was 1939 and World War II and the Nazi Germans were coming.

What does director Jean Renoir (“The Grand Illusion”, “The River”) do?

He creates a film titled “La Regle du jeu” (The Rules of the Game) that is part of an adaptation of Alfred de Musset’s “Les Caprices de Marianne” and a film that was so far ahead of its time, it received an audience reaction that the filmmakers nor the crew/talent were expecting.

When the film was screened in front of audiences in Paris, the controversial film was boo’ed, led to fights in the theater and people burning their newspapers and leading theater owners to demand that Renoir cut the film. The 94-minute film that was screened in theaters, then became 81-minutes and unlike “Grand Illusion” which lasted three months in theaters, “The Rules of the Game” lasted only three weeks.

It was the worst reception that Renoir had ever had for a film and was considered a massive failure. The upper class had an incredible disdain because of the actions of the characters in the film and because the film was a comedy that turns tragic, it was a film that defied normal standards of how storylines of films were at the time.

World War II came, Renoir fled to Rome (since he was a target by the Nazi’s) and as for the film, it was banned by the French government. When the film was sealed in a room with other films, because of World War II, that room was bombed and the original 94-minute cut of the film was destroyed.

And decades later, when two cinema fans Jean Gaborit and Jacques Durand wanted to fix the film back to its 94-minute glory, despite the original film being destroyed, the duo worked on the prints and compared with the 81-minute version. And lo and behold, canisters of the unedited footage of the film were found and when the two were done, a 106 minute version was created and is the version of the film that the world has seen. With the French New Wave in full force in France, many film critics, filmmakers and cinema magazines have called “The Rules of the Game” as one of the best films created of all time.

It was a film that was ahead of its time when released in theaters that was jarring to the audience but for the young and upcoming filmmakers who had experienced the back in 1939, the film was nothing like they have ever seen in their lives and help shape French cinema during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

“The Rules of the Game” is considered a masterpiece and one of the greatest films of all time. Ranked high by several film institutes and shown at film schools, the film was a bonafide flop during its theatrical run and only 20 years later, was the film truly appreciated and recognized.

The upper class and viewers of the film despised Renoir’s film as many felt it was a middle finger to the upper class, nor were cinemagoers expecting a tragedy when they thought the film would be a comedy. This is no different today especially how prestigious of a title this film has had since it’s 106-minute theatrical re-release back in 1959. Many viewers have approached the film almost similar to “Citizen’s Kane” questioning why this film is so highly regarded.

For one, people must recognized what Renoir created. During a time when many director’s were politically affiliated with the left or the right, most films favored the Burgeois. Renoir grew up with the rich courtesy of his famous father, painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. This film was Renoir wanting to show what he has experienced with the upperclass. Men and women who had sexual liasons with other partners and things that are done without remorse. Needless to say, the upperclass nor was the French government enthusiastic about the film. They outright banned it.

Renoir created a film that featured beautiful cinematography, well-paced but it took the viewer from its comedic ties to an ending that shocked viewers to the point they were disgusted, boo’ed and threw items on the front of the screen because they were upset. How could a film that could have been happy and a have a happy ending not be happy? With World War II approaching and Nazi Germany, the French viewers had no tolerance for such a film during that time and unfortunately, because of its failure, Renoir moved to Rome and then to the United States knowing he would be targeted or used by the Nazi’s.

Bare in mind, this was before the French New Wave. Before Godard, Chris Marker, Agnes Varda, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and others who would make their mark for their accomplishments for their works in cinema and doing their own thing. Going against what was normal in cinema and against what people typically expected. It was an exciting time in the 1960’s and these director’s praised the work of Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo.

For Alain Resnais and even Francois Truffaut, “The Rules of the Game” was significant as it showed them before their own careers of what cinema is capable of. In 1939, Jean Reno paid the price and although hailed for being one of the best masterpieces of all time, as much as Reno was happy, he paid the price. First, being forced to cut the film down to 81-minutes and then that version not surviving in the theater for a month and of course, losing the original cut of the film during World War II. It seemed too much but eventually he would rebound over a decade later when he worked on his first color film “The River”.

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“The Rules of the Game” is a film that challenged social convention. In terms of cinematography, it was unique as lighting was timed, characters in the background walking and reacting are timed perfectly with the main talent seen on camera. Was this camera work inspirational to Orson Welles for “Citizen Kane”. Possibly. But technically, the film looked so free flowing and cuts were well-done. Call it avante-garde or call the film the inspiration for the French New Wave, this 106-minute version of the film is a version that people around that many French didn’t see.

I’m not going suggest you to watch or own this film because critics call it one of the greatest films of all time. But I do hope people watch this film, know its impact as a failed masterpiece in 1939, but then 20-years-later, becoming a golden masterpiece that was way ahead of its time and it took that long to be appreciated.

It’s quite interesting because Renoir and Orson Welles became good friends in Hollywood. Renoir told Welles that “an artist must be 20 years head of his time but it was harder for an artist of the cinema because the cinema insists upon being 20 years behind the public”. Like father, like son. Jean Renoir’s “La Regle du jeu” (The Rules of the Game) is a masterpiece and over 70-years later, is still on top of the list for many cinema polls as one of the greatest films of all time.

“The Rules of the Game” is highly recommended!

Dennis A. Amith